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House of Earth and Blood: Part 2 – Chapter 15


Syrinx pawed at the window, his scrunched-up face smooshed against the glass. He’d been hissing incessantly for the past ten minutes, and Bryce, more than ready to settle into the plush cushions of the L-shaped couch and watch her favorite Tuesday night reality show, finally twisted to see what all the fuss was about.

Slightly bigger than a terrier, the chimera huffed and pawed at the floor-to-ceiling glass, the setting sun gilding his wiry golden coat. The long tail, tufted with dark fur at the end like a lion’s, waved back and forth. His folded little ears were flat to his round, fuzzy head, his wrinkles of fat and the longer hair at his neck—not quite a mane—were vibrating with his growling, and his too-big paws, which ended in birdlike talons, were now—

Stop that! You’re scratching the glass!”

Syrinx looked over a rounded, muscled shoulder, his squished face more dog than anything, and narrowed his dark eyes. Bryce glared right back.

The rest of her day had been long and weird and exhausting, especially after she’d gotten a message from Juniper, saying Fury had alerted her about Briggs’s innocence and the new murder, and warning Bryce to be careful. She doubted either friend knew of her involvement in finding the murderer, or of the angel who’d been assigned to work with her, but it had stung—just a bit. That Fury hadn’t bothered to contact her personally. That even June had done it over messaging and not face-to-face.

Bryce had a feeling tomorrow would be just as draining—if not worse. So throwing in a battle of wills with a thirty-pound chimera wasn’t her definition of a much-needed unwinding.

“You just got a walk,” she reminded Syrinx. “And an extra helping of dinner.”

Syrinx gave a hmmph and scratched the window again.

Bad!” she hissed. Half-heartedly, sure, but she tried to sound authoritative.

Where the little beast was concerned, dominance was a quality they both pretended she had.

Groaning, Bryce hauled herself from the nest of cushions and padded across wood and carpet to the window. On the street below, cars inched past, a few late commuters trudged home, and some dinner patrons strolled arm-in-arm to one of the fine restaurants along the river at the end of the block. Above them, the setting sun smeared the sky red and gold and pink, the palm trees and cypresses swayed in the balmy spring breeze, and … And that was a winged male sitting on the opposite roof. Staring right at her.

She knew those gray wings, and the dark, shoulder-length hair, and the cut of those broad shoulders.

Protection duty, Micah had said.

Bullshit. She had a strong feeling the Governor still didn’t trust her, alibi or no.

Bryce gave Hunt Athalar a dazzling smile and slashed the heavy curtains shut.

Syrinx yowled as he was caught in them, reversing his stout little body out of the folds. His tail lashed from side to side, and she braced her hands on her hips. “You were enjoying the sight?”

Syrinx showed all his pointy teeth as he let out another yowl, trotted to the couch, and threw himself onto the warmed cushions where she’d been sitting. The portrait of despair.

A moment later, her phone buzzed on the coffee table. Right as her show began.

She didn’t know the number, but she wasn’t at all surprised when she picked up, plopping down onto the cushions, and Hunt growled, “Open the curtains. I want to watch the show.”

She propped both bare feet on the table. “I didn’t know angels deigned to watch trash TV.”

“I’d rather watch the sunball game that’s on right now, but I’ll take what I can get.”

The idea of the Umbra Mortis watching a dating competition was laughable enough that Bryce hit pause on the live show. At least she could now speed through commercials. “What are you doing on that roof, Athalar?”

“What I was ordered to do.”

Gods spare her. “Protecting me doesn’t entitle you to invade my privacy.” She could admit to the wisdom in letting him guard her, but she didn’t have to yield all sense of boundaries.

“Other people would disagree.” She opened her mouth, but he cut her off. “I’ve got my orders. I can’t disobey them.”

Her stomach tightened. No, Hunt Athalar certainly could not disobey his orders.

No slave could, whether Vanir or human. So she instead asked, “And how, exactly, did you get this number?”

“It’s in your file.”

She tapped her foot on the table. “Did you pay Prince Ruhn a visit?” She would have handed over a gold mark to watch her brother go head-to-head with Micah’s personal assassin.

Hunt grunted, “Isaiah did.” She smiled. “It was standard protocol.”

“So even after your boss tasked me with finding this murderer, you felt the need to look into whether my alibi checked out?”

“I didn’t write the fucking rules, Quinlan.”

“Hmm.”

“Open the curtains.”

“No, thank you.”

“Or you could invite me in and make my job easier.”

“Definitely no.”

“Why?”

“Because you can do your job just as well from that roof.”

Hunt’s chuckle skittered along her bones. “We’ve been ordered to get to the bottom of these murders. So I hate to tell you this, sweetheart, but we’re about to get real up close and personal.”

The way he said sweetheart—full of demeaning, condescending swagger—made her grind her teeth.

Bryce rose, padding to the floor-to-ceiling window under Syrinx’s careful watch, and tugged the curtains back enough to see the angel standing on the opposite roof, phone to his ear, gray wings slightly flared, as if balancing against the wind. “I’m sure you get off on the whole protector-of-damsels thing, but I was asked to head this case. You’re the backup.”

Even from across the street, she could see him roll his eyes. “Can we skip this pecking-order bullshit?”

Syrinx nudged at her calves, then shoved his face past her legs to peer at the angel.

“What is that pet of yours?”

“He’s a chimera.”

“Looks expensive.”

“He was.”

“Your apartment looks pretty damn expensive, too. That sorceress must pay you well.”

“She does.” Truth and lie.

His wings flared. “You have my number now. Call it if something goes wrong, or feels wrong, or if you need anything.”

“Like a pizza?”

She clearly saw the middle finger Hunt lifted above his head. Shadow of Death, indeed.

Bryce purred, “You would make a good delivery boy with those wings.” Angels in Lunathion never stooped to such work, though. Ever.

“Keep the damn curtains open, Quinlan.” He hung up.

She just gave him a mocking wave. And shut the curtains entirely.

Her phone buzzed with a message just as she plopped down again.

Do you have enchantments guarding your apartment?

She rolled her eyes, typing back, Do I look stupid?

Hunt fired back, Some shit is going down in this city and you’ve been gifted with grade A protection against it—yet you’re busting my balls about boundaries. I think that’s answer enough regarding your intelligence.

Her thumbs flew over the screen as she scowled and wrote, Kindly fly the fuck off.

She hit send before she could debate the wisdom of saying that to the Umbra Mortis.

He didn’t reply. With a smug smile, she picked up her remote.

thud against the window had her leaping out of her skin, sending Syrinx scrambling in a mad dash toward the curtains, yowling his fuzzy head off.

She stormed around the couch, whipping the curtains back, wondering what the fuck he’d thrown at her window—

The Fallen angel hovered right there. Glaring at her.

She refused to back away, even as her heart thundered. Refused to do anything but shove open the window, the wind off his mighty wings stirring her hair. “What?”

His dark eyes didn’t so much as blink. Striking—that was the only word Bryce could think of to describe his handsome face, full of powerful lines and sharp cheekbones. “You can make this investigation easy, or you can make it hard.”

“I don’t—”

“Spare me.” Hunt’s dark hair shifted in the wind. The rustle and beat of his wings overpowered the traffic below—and the humans and Vanir now gawking up at him. “You don’t appreciate being watched, or coddled, or whatever.” He crossed his muscled arms. “Neither of us gets a say in this arrangement. So rather than waste your breath arguing about boundaries, why don’t you make that list of suspects and Danika’s movements?”

“Why don’t you stop telling me what I should be doing with my time?”

She could have sworn she tasted ether as he growled, “I’m going to be straight with you.”

“Goody.”

His nostrils flared. “I will do whatever the Hel it takes to solve this case. Even if it means tying you to a fucking chair until you write those lists.”

She smirked. “Bondage. Nice.”

Hunt’s eyes darkened. “Do. Not. Fuck. With. Me.”

“Yeah, yeah, you’re the Umbra Mortis.”

His teeth flashed. “I don’t care what you call me, Quinlan, so long as you do what you’re told.”

Fucking alphahole.

“Immortality is a long time to have a giant stick up your ass.” Bryce put her hands on her hips. Never mind that she was completely undermined by Syrinx dancing at her feet, prancing in place.

Dragging his stare away from her, the angel surveyed her pet with raised brows. Syrinx’s tail waved and bobbed. Hunt snorted, as if despite himself. “You’re a smart beastie, aren’t you?” He threw a scornful glance to Bryce. “Smarter than your owner, it seems.”

Make that the King of Alphaholes.

But Syrinx preened. And Bryce had the stupid, overwhelming urge to hide Syrinx from Hunt, from anyone, from anything. He was hers, and no one else’s, and she didn’t particularly like the thought of anyone coming into their little bubble—

Hunt’s stare lifted to her own again. “Do you own any weapons?” The purely male gleam in his eye told her that he assumed she didn’t.

“Bother me again,” she said sweetly, just before she shut the window in his face, “and you’ll find out.”

Hunt wondered how much trouble he’d get in if he chucked Bryce Quinlan into the Istros.

After the morning he’d had, any punishment from Micah or being turned into a pig by Jesiba Roga was starting to seem well worth it.

Leaning against a lamppost, his face coated with the misting rain that drifted through the city, Hunt clenched his jaw hard enough to hurt. At this hour, commuters packed the narrow streets of the Old Square—some heading to jobs in the countless shops and galleries, others aiming for the spires of the CBD, half a mile westward. All of them, however, noted his wings, his face, and gave him a wide berth.

Hunt ignored them and glanced at the clock on his phone. Eight fifteen.

He’d waited long enough to make the call. He dialed the number and held the phone to his ear, listening to it ring once, twice—

“Please tell me Bryce is alive,” said Isaiah, his voice breathless in a way that told Hunt he was either at the barracks gym or enjoying his boyfriend’s company.

“For the moment.”

A machine beeped, like Isaiah was dialing down the speed of a treadmill. “Do I want to know why I’m getting a call this soon?” A pause. “Why are you on Samson Street?”

Though Isaiah probably tracked his location through the beacon on Hunt’s phone, Hunt still scowled toward the nearest visible camera. There were likely ones hidden in the cypresses and palm trees flanking the sidewalks, too, or disguised as sprinkler heads popping from the soggy grass of the flower beds, or built into the iron lampposts like the one he leaned against.

Someone was always watching. In this entire fucking city, territory, and world, someone was always watching, the cameras so bespelled and warded that they were bombproof. Even if this city turned to rubble under the lethal magic of the Asterian Guard’s brimstone missiles, the cameras would keep recording.

“Are you aware,” Hunt said, his voice a low rasp as a bevy of quails snaked across the street—some tiny shifter family, no doubt—“that chimeras are able to pick locks, open doors, and jump between two places as if they were walking from one room to another?”

“No …?” Isaiah said, panting.

Apparently, Quinlan wasn’t, either, if she bothered to have a crate for her beast. Though maybe the damn thing was more to give the chimera a designated comfort space, like people did with their dogs. Since there was no way he would stay contained without a whole host of enchantments.

The Lowers, the class of Vanir to which the chimera belonged, had all sorts of interesting, small powers like that. It was part of why they demanded such high prices on the market. And why, even millennia later, the Senate and Asteri had shot down any attempts to change the laws that branded them as property to be traded. The Lowers were too dangerous, they’d claimed—unable to understand the laws, with powers that could be disruptive if left unchecked by the various spells and magic-infused tattoos that held them.

And too lucrative, especially for the ruling powers whose families profited from their trade.

So they remained Lowers.

Hunt tucked his wings in one at a time. Water beaded off the gray feathers like clear jewels. “This is already a nightmare.”

Isaiah coughed. “You watched Quinlan for one night.”

“Ten hours, to be exact. Right until her pet chimera just appeared next to me at dawn, bit me in the ass for looking like I was dozing off, and then vanished again—right back into the apartment. Just as Quinlan came out of her bedroom and opened the curtains to see me grabbing my own ass like a fucking idiot. Do you know how sharp a chimera’s teeth are?”

“No.” Hunt could have sworn he heard a smile in Isaiah’s voice.

“When I flew over to explain, she blasted her music and ignored me like a fucking brat.” With enough enchantments around her apartment to keep out a host of angels, Hunt hadn’t even tried to get in through a window, since he’d tested them all overnight. So he’d been forced to glower through the glass—returning to the roof only after she’d emerged from her bedroom in nothing but a black sports bra and thong. Her smirk at his backtracking wings had been nothing short of feline. “I didn’t see her again until she went for a run. She flipped me off as she left.”

“So you went to Samson Street to brood? What’s the emergency?”

“The emergency, asshole, is that I might kill her before we find the real murderer.” He had too much riding on this case.

“You’re just pissed she’s not cowering or fawning.”

“Like I fucking want anyone to fawn—”

“Where’s Quinlan now?”

“Getting her nails done.”

Isaiah’s pause sounded a Hel of a lot like he was about to burst out laughing. “Hence your presence on Samson Street before nine.”

“Gazing through the window of a nail salon like a gods-damned stalker.”

The fact that Quinlan wasn’t gunning for the murderer grated as much as her behavior. And Hunt couldn’t help being suspicious. He didn’t know how or why she might have killed Danika, her pack, and Tertian, but she’d been connected to all of them. Had gone to the same place on the nights they’d been murdered. She knew something—or had done something.

“I’m hanging up now.” The bastard was smiling. Hunt knew it. “You’ve faced down enemy armies, survived Sandriel’s arena, gone toe-to-toe with Archangels.” Isaiah chuckled. “Surely a party girl isn’t as difficult as all that.” The line cut off.

Hunt ground his teeth. Through the glass window of the salon, he could perfectly make out Bryce seated at one of the marble workstations, hands outstretched to a pretty reddish-gold-scaled draki female who was putting yet another coat of polish on her nails. How many did she need?

At this hour, only a few other patrons were seated inside, nails or talons or claws in the process of being filed and painted and whatever the Hel they did to them in there. But all of them kept glancing through the window. To him.

He’d already earned a glare from the teal-haired falcon shifter at the welcome counter, but she hadn’t dared come out to ask him to stop making her clients nervous and leave.

Bryce sat there, wholly ignoring him. Chatting and laughing with the female doing her nails.

It had taken Hunt a matter of moments to launch into the skies when Bryce had left her apartment. He’d trailed overhead, well aware of the morning commuters who would film him if he landed beside her in the middle of the street and wrapped his hands around her throat.

Her run took her fifteen blocks away, apparently. She had barely broken a sweat by the time she jogged up to the nail salon, her skintight athletic clothes damp with the misting rain, and threw him a look that warned him to stay outside.

That had been an hour ago. A full hour of drills and files and scissors being applied to her nails in a way that would make the Hind herself cringe. Pure torture.

Five minutes. Quinlan had five more fucking minutes, then he’d drag her out. Micah must have lost his mind—that was the only explanation for asking her to help, especially if she prioritized her nails over solving her friends’ murder.

He didn’t know why it came as a surprise. After all he’d seen, everyone he’d met and endured, this sort of shit should have ceased to bother him long ago.

Someone with Quinlan’s looks would become accustomed to the doors that face and body of hers opened without so much as a squeak of protest. Being half-human had some disadvantages, yes—a lot of them, if he was being honest about the state of the world. But she’d done well. Really fucking well, if that apartment was any indication.

The draki female set aside the bottle and flicked her claw-tipped fingers over Bryce’s nails. Magic sparked, Bryce’s ponytail shifting as if a dry wind had blown by.

Like that of the Valbaran Fae, draki magic skewed toward flame and wind. In the northern climes of Pangera, though, he’d met draki and Fae whose power could summon water, rain, mist—element-based magic. But even among the reclusive draki and the Fae, no one bore lightning. He knew, because he’d looked—desperate in his youth for anyone who might teach him how to control it. He’d had to teach himself in the end.

Bryce examined her nails, and smiled. And then hugged the female. Fucking hugged her. Like she was some sort of gods-damned war hero for the job she’d done.

Hunt was surprised his teeth weren’t ground to stumps by the time she headed for the door, waving goodbye to the smiling falcon shifter at the front desk, who handed her a clear umbrella, presumably to borrow against the rain.

The glass door opened, and Bryce’s eyes at last met Hunt’s.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” The words exploded out of him.

She popped open the umbrella, nearly taking out his eye. “Did you have something better to do with your time?”

“You made me wait in the rain.”

“You’re a big, tough male. I think you can handle a little water.”

Hunt fell into step beside her. “I told you to make those two lists. Not go to a motherfucking beauty salon.”

She paused at an intersection, waiting for the bumper-to-bumper cars to crawl past, and straightened to her full height. Not anywhere close to his, but she somehow managed to look down her nose at him while still looking up at him. “If you’re so good at investigating, why don’t you look into it and spare me the effort?”

“You were given an order by the Governor.” The words sounded ridiculous even to him. She crossed the street, and he followed. “And I’d think you’d be personally motivated to figure out who’s behind this.”

“Don’t assume anything about my motivations.” She dodged around a puddle of either rain or piss. In the Old Square, it was impossible to tell.

He refrained from pushing her into that puddle. “Do you have a problem with me?”

“I don’t really care about you enough to have a problem with you.”

“Likewise.”

Her eyes really did glow then, as if a distant fire simmered within. She surveyed him, sizing up every inch and somehow—some-fucking-how—making him feel about three inches tall.

He said nothing until they turned down her street at last. He growled, “You need to make the list of suspects and the list of Danika’s last week of activities.”

She examined her nails, now painted in some sort of color gradient that went from pink to periwinkle tips. Like the sky at twilight. “No one likes a nag, Athalar.”

They reached the arched glass entry of her apartment building—structured like a fish’s fin, he’d realized last night—and the doors slid open. Ponytail swishing, she said cheerfully, “Bye.”

Hunt drawled, “People might see you dicking around like this, Quinlan, and think you were trying to hinder an official investigation.” If he couldn’t bully her into working on this case, maybe he could scare her into it.

Especially with the truth: She wasn’t off the hook. Not even close.

Her eyes flared again, and damn if it wasn’t satisfying. So Hunt just added, mouth curving into a half smile, “Better hurry. You wouldn’t want to be late for work.”

Going to the nail salon had been worth it on so many levels, but perhaps the biggest benefit had been pissing off Athalar.

“I don’t see why you can’t let the angel in,” moped Lehabah, perched atop an old pillar candle. “He’s so handsome.”

In the bowels of the gallery library, client paperwork spread on the table before her, Bryce cast a sidelong glare at the female-shaped flame. “Do not drip wax on these documents, Lele.”

The fire sprite grumbled, and plopped her ass on the candle’s wick anyway. Wax dribbled down the sides, her tangle of yellow hair floating above her head—as if she were indeed a flame given a plump female shape. “He’s just sitting on the roof in the dreary weather. Let him rest on the couch down here. Syrinx says the angel can brush his coat if he needs something to do.”

Bryce sighed at the painted ceiling—the night sky rendered in loving care. The giant gold chandelier that hung down the center of the space was fashioned after an exploding sun, with all the other dangling lights in perfect alignment of the seven planets. “The angel,” she said, frowning toward Syrinx’s slumbering form on the green velvet couch, “is not allowed in here.”

Lehabah let out a sad little noise. “One day, the boss will trade my services to some lecherous old creep, and you’ll regret ever denying me anything.”

“One day, that lecherous old creep will actually make you do your job and guard his books, and you’ll regret spending all these hours of relative freedom moping.”

Wax sizzled on the table. Bryce whipped her head up.

Lehabah was sprawled belly-down on the candle, an idle hand hanging off the side. Dangerously near the documents Bryce had spent the past three hours poring over.

“Do not.”

Lehabah rotated her arm so that the tattoo inked amid the simmering flesh was visible. It had been stamped on her arm within moments of her birth, Lehabah had said. SPQM. It was inked on the flesh of every sprite—fire or water or earth, it didn’t matter. Punishment for joining the angels’ rebellion two hundred years ago, when the sprites had dared protest their status as peregrini. As Lowers. The Asteri had gone even further than their enslavement and torture of the angels. They’d decreed after the rebellion that every sprite—not only the ones who’d joined Shahar and her legion—would be enslaved, and cast from the House of Sky and Breath. All of their descendants would be wanderers and slaves, too. Forever.

It was one of the more spectacularly fucked episodes of the Republic’s history.

Lehabah sighed. “Buy my freedom from Jesiba. Then I can go live at your apartment and keep your baths and all your food warm.”

She could do far more than that, Bryce knew. Technically, Lehabah’s magic outranked Bryce’s own. But most non-humans could claim the same. And even while it was greater than Bryce’s, Lehabah’s power was still an ember compared to the Fae’s flames. Her father’s flames.

Bryce set down the client’s purchase papers. “It’s not that easy, Lele.”

“Syrinx told me you’re lonely. I could cheer you up.”

In answer, the chimera rolled onto his back, tongue dangling from his mouth, and snored.

“One, my building doesn’t allow fire sprites. Or water sprites. It’s an insurance nightmare. Two, it’s not as simple as asking Jesiba. She might very well get rid of you because I ask.”

Lehabah cupped her round chin in her hand and dripped another freckle of wax dangerously close to the paperwork. “She gave you Syrie.”

Cthona give her patience. “She let me buy Syrinx because my life was fucked up, and I lost it when she got bored with him and tried to sell him off.”

The fire sprite said quietly, “Because Danika died.”

Bryce closed her eyes for a second, then said, “Yeah.”

“You shouldn’t curse so much, BB.”

“Then you really won’t like the angel.”

“He led my people into battle—and he’s a member of my House. I deserve to meet him.”

“Last I checked, that battle went rather poorly, and the fire sprites were kicked out of Sky and Breath thanks to it.”

Lehabah sat up, legs crossed. “Membership in the Houses is not something a government can decree. Our expulsion was in name only.”

It was true. But Bryce still said, “What the Asteri and their Senate say goes.”

Lehabah had been guardian of the gallery’s library for decades. Logic insisted that ordering a fire sprite to watch over a library was a poor idea, but when a third of the books in the place would like nothing more than to escape, kill someone, or eat them—in varying orders—having a living flame keeping them in line was worth any risk. Even the endless chatter, it seemed.

Something thumped on the mezzanine. As if a book had dived off the shelf of its own accord.

Lehabah hissed toward it, turning a deep blue. Paper and leather whispered as the errant book found its place once again.

Bryce smiled, and then the office phone rang. One glance at the screen had her reaching for the phone and hissing at the sprite, “Back on your perch now.”

Lehabah had just reached the glass dome where she maintained her fiery vigil over the library’s wandering books when Bryce answered. “Afternoon, boss.”

“Any progress?”

“Still investigating. How’s Pangera?”

Jesiba didn’t bother answering, instead saying, “I’ve got a client coming in at two o’clock. Be ready. And stop letting Lehabah prattle. She has a job to do.” The line went dead.

Bryce rose from the desk where she’d been working all morning. The oak panels of the library beneath the gallery looked old, but they were wired with the latest tech and best enchantments money could buy. Not to mention, there was a killer sound system that she often put to good use when Jesiba was on the other side of the Haldren.

Not that she danced down here—not anymore. Nowadays, the music was mostly to keep the thrumming of the firstlights from driving her insane. Or for drowning out Lehabah’s monologues.

Bookshelves lined every wall, interrupted only by a dozen or so small tanks and terrariums, occupied by all manner of small common animals: lizards and snakes and turtles and various rodents. Bryce often wondered if they were all people who’d pissed off Jesiba. None showed any sign of awareness, which was even more horrifying if it was true. They’d not only been turned into animals, but had also forgotten they were something else entirely.

Naturally, Lehabah had named all of them, each one more ridiculous than the last. Nutmeg and Ginger were the names of the geckos in the tank closest to Bryce. Sisters, Lehabah claimed. Miss Poppy was the name of the black-and-white snake on the mezzanine.

Lehabah never named anything in the biggest tank, though. The massive one that occupied an entire wall of the library, and whose glass expanse revealed a watery gloom. Mercifully, the tank was currently empty.

Last year, Bryce lobbied on Lehabah’s behalf for a few iris eels to brighten the murky blue with their shimmering rainbow light. Jesiba had said no, and instead bought a pet kelpie that had humped the glass with all the finesse of a wasted college guy.

Bryce had made sure that motherfucker was given to a client as a gift really quickly.

Bryce braced herself for the work before her. Not the paperwork or the client—but what she had to do tonight. Gods fucking help her when Athalar got wind of it.

But the thought of his face when he realized what she had planned … Yeah, it’d be satisfying.

If she survived.


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